The Scythe and the Flower

On Facebook, I got into a long discussion on the difference between subversive and superversive, and whether or not either or both were necessary. Eventually an analogy occurred to me that I think works extremely well.

Imagine a garden. Part of it is made up of beautiful flowers, and part of it is made up of ugly, creeping weeds.

Subversive fiction is like taking a scythe to the garden. A scythe is a tool; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Used properly, the scythe can take down weeds. “Pygmalion”, later turned into “My Fair Lady”, was used to cut down English high society to scale; “The Importance of Being Ernest” was used for a similar reason. You can probably classify “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, a series I am on the record as a fan of, as subversive. It subverts all sorts of things over the course of the series, but most obviously it subverts common children’s literature tropes. All of these works are very high quality works of literature.

Of course, subversive media doesn’t always take down weeds; it can also take down flowers. “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman and Pullman’s Dark Materials series are subversions of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and its Christian worldview. “Watchmen” subverts the concept of heroism. And while all of those works are high quality, some even brilliant, they’re all cutting down flowers.

In contrast to the scythe, superversive fiction is like growing a flower. The scythe is a tool that is used to cut down and prune, but the flower brings something beautiful in the world. It’s a living, growing work of art.

And while the scythe is sometimes necessary, we can always use more flowers.


  • The thing about The Magicians — or rather about its subversiveness (it has other flaws) — is that it didn’t build up Fillory enough to be convincing. It is possible to build up a book within a book enough to convince us that it really was a great and inspiring book; Dorothy Gilman managed it in The Tightrope Walker (but don’t read her attempt to actually write the book). Grossman didn’t pull it off. But if Fillory is not viewed as great and inspiring, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s something less than wonderful in reality.

    To successfully subvert something, you must pay enough tribute to its virtues to make it convincing that the something is there to be subverted.

    • Bellomy

      Anthony here – this has been my Disqus name for awhile.

      I don’t have an opinion on “The Magicians” as a series. For all I know I’d really love it, or really hate it, or totally agree with your criticism. I’m just noting that it is absolutely and overtly intended to subvert the Narnia books and Narnia-style fiction.